Lawsuit Charges Pawtucket Police Department Is Violating Open Records Law

Aug 8, 2017

Steve Brown, lawyer Kelly Sheridan, Dimitri Lyssikatos, and Lynn Farinelli discuss the ACLU's lawsuit against the Pawtucket Police Department.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

A lawsuit filed by the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU charges that the Pawtucket Police Department is violating the state's open records law by choosing not to release internal affairs reports on officer-initiated complaints.

During a news conference at the ACLU's Providence office Tuesday, RI executive director Steven Brown and other open records advocates said the Pawtucket's department's stance violates the Access to Public Records Act (APRA).

"We consider this to be just the latest example of a continued attack on access to public records here in Rhode Island," said RI ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown. "The lawsuit that we filed .... demonstrates police departments continuing to inappropriately shield themselves from public scrutiny with no good reason whatsoever."

The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court on behalf of Dimitri Lyssikatos of Providence, part of The Rhode Island Accountability Project, which said it promotes transparency in law enforcement. In April, the ACLU said, the Pawtucket Police Department denied his request for two years of internally generated misconduct complaints, saying even if the records were redacted to protect the identities of police and other individuals, they were “personal individually-identifiable records" and would not shed light on "official acts and workings of government."

According to the ACLU, the Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that final reports of investigations of police misconduct are public records, regardless of whether they are prompted by citizen complaints or initiated by police.

Pawtucket Police Chief Tina Goncalves and Pawtucket City Solicitor Frank J. Milos Jr. did not return messages seeking comment.

In a statement released through Mayor Don Grebien's office, the city said, "We respect the role that the ACLU plays in advocating for the rights of individuals. The city continues to be open and transparent in its handling of requests and complaints, and seeks to provide as much information as possible, while balancing the rights of victims, families, and personnel. We look forward to learning the details of the case."

R. Kelly Sheridan, an outside lawyer working on the lawsuit, said the Pawtucket solicitor reviewed the 57 files sought by Lyssikatos and wrote in a denial letter "that in his opinion ... the public interest in the disclosure of these records is negligible. I hope you can all understand that the open records statute will be reduced to a nullity if public officials can refuse to release public records because they have made this subjective determination that in their personal opinion there is no compelling public interest in disclosure."

Sheridan said disclosing personally identifiable information in the police records would constitute "a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." But that is not a factor in this lawsuit, he said, since Lyssikatos had agreed to the redaction of personally identifiable information.

The open records advocates who took part in the ACLU's news conference said the lawsuit highlights both a longstanding problem in Pawtucket and broader difficulty in getting access to records from many police departments in Rhode Island.

While some records merit secrecy, "There is no reason to deny citizens the right to records that are open under the law," said Linda Lotridge Levin, a former president of the Rhode Island Press Association and a founder of the pro-transparency group ACCESS/Rhode Island. "Doing so simply confirms the public's suspicion that the police operate behind closed doors. In Pawtucket, we have seen that this has been a definable endemic problem for almost 20 years."

Levin and Brown said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, whose office has the authority for enforcing Rhode Island's Access to Public Records Act, has demonstrated a tendency to side with law enforcement over individuals or groups seeking access to law enforcement records. Kilmartin is a former captain in the Pawtucket Police Department.

Levin said advocates are starting a conversation about whether the state would be better served by moving that oversight authority to a different office.

In a statement, Amy Kempe, Kilmartin's spokeswoman, said, "Because the subject matter of this lawsuit is currently in litigation in which the Office is not a party to, and in which the subject matter was not reviewed by this Office, we cannot comment on the specific allegations therein.

"With respect to the editorial comments made at the press conference," Kempe continued, "the ACLU ignores the long history that Attorney General Kilmartin has dedicated to transparency and open government. Just last month, we hosted our 19th annual open government summit, at which more than 500 people attended. The Attorney General also makes the summit presentation and materials available for viewing online year-round for those who could not attend or need a refresher. Further, it was through his advocacy and leadership in 2012 that the General Assembly passed sweeping updates to the Access to Public Records Act, increasing transparency and making documents available to the public that previously were exempt. And, the Office has filed more open government lawsuits against public bodies during this Administration than during the previous 12 years combined.

"As we teach in the Open Government Summit, city and towns evaluate APRA requests internally with their own legal counsel and make decisions as to what documents are made public. The Attorney General’s Office has no role in that part of the process. If an individual disagrees with a decision by a public body, they may file a complaint with this office or with the Superior Court. When the Office does issue an open government finding, our decisions are based solely on the facts presented and law without regard to the individuals or entities involved.

"The ACLU once again is mixing a heavy dose of innuendo with the law in an attempt to reach a self-serving political outcome. While we can hope to have a healthy and respectful debate about the requirements of the APRA with the ACLU and others, as the Supreme Court’s decision last year in Providence Journal v. Rhode Island State Police demonstrates, the ACLU’s interpretation of the law is not always correct."

This story has been updated.